NEW YORK — In a category dominated by such stalwarts as Heinz and Hellmann’s, a New York startup has set out to shake things up. Sir Kensington’s was launched in 2010 by Mark Ramadan and Scott Norton, former classmates with little background in the food industry who sought a higher-quality alternative to mainstream condiments. Today, the brand’s premium ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise products are available in 5,000 natural grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market, and 750 food service outlets, including such restaurants as Epic Burger, Spotted Pig and Village Pub, and such hotels as Four Seasons, St. Regis and Ritz Carlton.
“Every year for the past five years we’ve either doubled or tripled in sales, and this year we’ll be almost 10 times the sales that we did in 2013,” said Mr. Ramadan, co-founder and chief executive officer of Kensington & Sons.
What began as two businessmen determined to make better ketchup and mustard has become a company driven by the mission to fix “a broken food system.”
“Our thought was if people are excited and passionate about transparency of ingredients and quality and taste in everything from yogurt to cold-pressed juice to cereal to hummus, then why not those other things they buy all the time?” Mr. Ramadan said. “I think it’s important, just the belief that people deserve choice and something better in everything they put into their bodies, but also personally, we weren’t really buying anything out there because we didn’t think there was anything that tasted good enough or was authentic to what you could make at home.”
The company prides itself on using simple, high-quality ingredients, such as crushed ripe tomatoes, Chablis wine and organic white vinegar.
“In our mayonnaise, instead of using canola oil or soybean oil, we have chosen to use sunflower oil, which was the original oil used to make mayonnaise,” Mr. Ramadan said. “Instead of using factory-farmed eggs or whatever we could find, we are now the largest buyer of free-range non-G.M.O. certified humane eggs.”
In August, Sir Kensington’s received $8.5 million in equity funding led by Verlinvest, a private investment holding company, to support expanded distribution and product development.
|Mark Ramadan, co-founder and c.e.o. of Kensington & Sons|
“As part of that same round, we were able to raise money from Mike Kirban, who founded Vita Coco, from David Barber… of Blue Hill at Stone Barns,” Mr. Ramadan said. “Obviously it’s a tremendous compliment, that they see something in what we’re doing, and it really comes down to using that approach in moving food forward, but in a category that’s been basically ignored up to this point.”
In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Ramadan discussed the past, present and future of Sir Kensington’s and his hopes for the industry.
Food Business News: What inspired you and Scott to start the business?
Mark Ramadan: I think that over the last five years the food world has changed tremendously. You can’t walk down the dairy aisle without choosing between 50 kinds of organic eggs or dozens of kinds of organic yogurt, and that’s been great, but for us, the insight was this hasn’t really reached the condiment aisle yet, and condiments are ubiquitous. They’re used daily, they’re a billion dollar business, and they are just as interesting to us as anything in the grocery store.
But you actually had no prior experience running a food company.
Mr. Ramadan: Scott and I didn’t know that much about the food world. I think if we did, we would have gotten more advice to stay away from condiments. Everyone has naysayers in their company history. We really didn’t have that many naysayers. People were like, “Oh, you’re right; there is no better ketchup. You should try that out.” And those were people who had no food world experience, so little did they know how challenging it would be.
Now that the business has grown, has it become more difficult to source ingredients that meet your standards of quality?
Mr. Ramadan: To be honest, I think the challenges came earlier. In the example of the ketchup, almost all ketchups and certainly all commercially made mass brands start with tomato concentrate, which is processed and cheaper than buying whole tomatoes. We made the decision very early on to buy whole tomatoes. As a result, we had to find a supplier of those, and tomatoes are more expensive than concentrate, and especially since ours are vine-ripened and harvested once per year, and they’re canned within six hours of being picked. We try in everything that we make to start with something that high quality.
To be honest, the bigger we get, the easier it is to source higher-quality ingredients because we have more scale, and so it has gotten cheaper over time and we have formed really great partnerships with these suppliers.
Is the plan to stay in condiments, or will the brand branch out into other categories?
Mr. Ramadan: We purposefully tried to build the mission and the values in thinking about sourcing in a way that isn’t specific to condiments. Our goal is to leave a mark on the food world and to improve people’s lives through food. Right now we’re doing that in condiments, but Sir Kensington as a character and a brand is not specific to condiments.
We are always thinking about where else we can bring this change and what other categories need help and what consumers are asking for. As an example, I think there are a lot of great companies doing a lot of great things in moving dairy sourcing forward. Maple Hill Creamery in upstate New York is doing fantastic work in making all of its dairy exclusively with grass-fed, organic milk. We wouldn’t get into that space because I think there’s already a lot of work being done with the supply chain there.
As we think about where the company is going to go, I think there’s a lot of work left to be done in condiments for sure. We have grand aspirations, and we want to be someone’s primary choice for a better alternative in ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard. We’re not quite there yet. We still have lot of work to get the stuff that we currently make out there, but we definitely think the food world is really just at the beginning of changing.
Mr. Ramadan: Innovation and product development is the core of who we are. We are coming out with more in 2016. We’ve had a lot of demands for more sizes of mayo and more oil options, so those are going to be things we’re exploring in 2016. There are more specialty oils we want to explore that have really great flavor profiles and nutritional benefits as well.
This year we launched a squeeze bottle line for our ketchup and mustard in a very small test market. In 2016, we’re going to launch the squeeze line to more stores.
And we do have another awesome trick up our sleeve, which is still in the umbrella of condiments, but it’s something no one else is doing yet, and I think it’s going to be really exciting. That I can’t reveal yet.
You also launched a special sauce this year.
Mr. Ramadan: Yes, that was actually a surprise hit for us. Scott and I are both from California, so we grew up with In-N-Out and animal sauce and all that… It has actually become our best seller in a couple parts of the country. It has a base of mayo with ketchup and mustard and chopped pickled relish. It’s really good.
Tell me about your food service business.
Mr. Ramadan: Working with chefs and hotel operators is totally different than working with buyers in retail stores. No chef is going to pay more for a recipe they don’t believe in, so every time we’re doing product development, it’s always, “Does it pass the chef test?” And fortunately we work with a lot of chefs who are happy to be a part of that process.
Do you see a place for your products in the conventional grocery channel?
Mr. Ramadan: Certainly I do. I think that Annie’s and Amy’s and Honest Tea are great examples of companies that have built brands around pillars of quality, and in some cases, organic, that have also made the leap from natural to conventional.
We want to be that option for every shopper, not just the shoppers who go to Whole Foods. But we want to take our time to build the brand and figure out what do people like, what they don’t like and the price they are willing to pay before we go to conventional grocery stores. Within the next couple of years, absolutely.
All of your products are Non-GMO Project verified. Why haven’t you pursued an organic certification?
Mr. Ramadan: We will be launching our first organic line in 2016. We have been working on it for a long time. A lot of ingredients we source are organic; we use organic vinegar and organic sugar. Part of the challenge in building a not-off-the-shelf supply chain is that organic certification has been harder to get.
Using tomatoes as an example, our priority is sourcing the highest quality, best-tasting tomatoes possible, so we source from a collective of small farms in northern California. They hold themselves to standards that are as high if not higher than organic. And some of those are organic certified, but not all of them are because they’re old-school, and to get the certification is sometimes costly and time-intensive and difficult.We have prioritized creating the best, most authentic product possible, and in all cases where we can, we source organic ingredients, but in the case where we have to make a choice — do we use organic tomato concentrate or do we use non-G.M.O. whole tomatoes that we really believe in and that taste better — we make the latter choice knowing that we’re going to continue to work on it as we get bigger and have more scale.